Chasing the Light in Wilkes

· Reading Time: 17 minutes

Sunday, January 17, 2021

If you will remember my last trek, I spoke about a location that I had been wanting to shoot that included two barns.  I had been out there several times getting the composition ideas fine tuned and waiting for that perfect day to photograph them.  I had figured out that the best bet would be a foggy day to really take advantage of the tree behind the barn which was the most interesting to me of the whole scene.  The idea was to have the trees to the rear fade away and hopefully not even be a part of the scene.  I knew that there were going to be some clouds in the area of Purlear on Sunday so I was paying particular attention to the morning forecast as I got ready for bed Saturday night.  The humidity was down and the chance of fog was minimal so I didn’t worry too much about getting up early to go and try once again to get this barn.  Instead I just decided to wake up when I did and look at the sky to see if it was something that I wanted to work with.

Well, I got up around 8am and looked outside.  There were clouds, but they were patchy.  It wasn’t quite what I had been expecting.  A quick check of the weather showed that the clouds would be intermittent through the morning and then start to pile on in the afternoon.  I got to thinking that I would head out to Traphill in an attempt to photograph a junk yard that I had been trying for some time now.  The chances of catching somebody at home on a weekend might be a little higher than during the week which I had failed at recently.  I would take the long way out there and check out the Wilkesboro Speedway which I had not been by in some time now.  That was another area that I really wanted to try and photograph but hadn’t thus far.

I grabbed my gear and I was out the door with a plan of action.  As I was driving down the road I was looking at the sky which was quite a bit brighter than I would have wanted.  I was out now, so it was up to me to find something to put in front of the camera.  When I got to Boone Trail, I was planning on turning left to get out to 421, but looking at the clouds, it was mostly blue sky to the East.  My best clouds were to the West and that was where I needed to go.  I changed things up and turned to the right with a goal of chasing the light and the clouds more than finding a particular subject.  As I was working my way down Boone Trail, I started to think about what was out this way that I could use under this sky.  The first thing that came to mind was the pair of barns that I had been wanting to photograph.  The light was in the right direction and the clouds were looking interesting beyond that.  It could work, I told myself and made my way to the barns.

Forgotten Shelter“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When I arrived I took a quick look at the scene.  The light was pretty great on the barns with the sun out from the clouds to my back.  The clouds were coming into the scene behind the barns.  This was a completely different scene than I had witnessed before with interesting clouds.  The last time I had seen them under clouds like this, the sun was also behind the clouds and the barns were in too much shade.  This could actually work out.  I didn’t have the fog to provide the separation I wanted from the background, but the way the light was hitting the barn and the tree gave me hope that I might not need the fog after all.

I got out of the truck and grabbed my camera with the standard lens attached.  I had been here enough times to know what lens was going to work for the compositions I had in mind.  I attached my polarizer to give a little contrast to the sky and remove some glare off of the tin that topped both barns.  I then started to get the tripod set up in the brush next to the fence.  Ideally, I would have liked to have gotten in closer to the barns, but that would have meant jumping a fence that was clearly marked for “No Trespassing.”  Since that wasn’t an option, I had to find a break in the tall weeds to get the camera positioned in.  I found just that spot and started to dial in the composition.

I started out with a horizontal approach that captured both of the barns which I thought told more of the story.  The problem with that idea was that the nearest barn was completely covered with weeds and vines leaving only a rough shape and a roof to detail what it was.  It was not ideal, but the light was giving me enough detail on that building to make it work for the overall composition.  With that in the foreground in the lower right third, I was able to position the other barn in the lower left third with the tree stretching up along the left third line into the clouds.  There was enough separation between the two barns to keep the composition simple.  There was another small tree which was blocking part of the second barn, but that helped to relate it to the closer barn which I thought worked well.

The exposure was easy enough with the sunlight on the barns so I didn’t have to worry about the exposure in the sky.  It was looking pretty even in the histogram which was a great thing.  That was the biggest problem that I had here before the last time I tried to actually photograph it.  The shadows were just too deep and there wasn’t enough detail to be had.  This time, I had plenty of detail, in fact there were no shadows that were blocked up according to my histogram.

Echoes of the Farm“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

After trying several different exposures with some variations on the compositions, I turned my attention to the composition that I had ultimately decided on for the foggy morning shoot should that ever happen.  I flipped the camera on its side and framed up a vertical image of the barn and the tree.  It really brought the attention right to what I was wanting to showcase and there are times when I really like the direct nature of the postcard shot.  The scene was complicated enough so the vertical frame really helped to simplify it.  For this one, I was wishing that the brush in the front of the barn was not there to give a clear view of the face, but that was not in the cards for this barn.  There was no way to compose it to eliminate that slight distraction.  Thankfully, the tall tree behind the barn pulled enough of the visual weight that the slight obstacle to the barn wasn’t too noticeable in the grand scheme of things.

I shot a lot of frames here at the light changed and I worked out many variations on the compositions that I had started with.  I was pretty sure that I had what I wanted from this location.  I was still wanting to see how it would look during the fog, but I was thrilled to have something workable from here under these current conditions.  It just goes to show that there are times when you need to keep an open mind about a location and what you previsualize might not be all that will work.

Feeling that the light wasn’t going to get any better, I packed my gear up and started back out on the road.  The clouds were breaking up a bit at this point and I saw the opportunity to do some long exposure work with the clouds that were remaining in the sky.  I had seen the WNC Visitor’s Center off of 421 several times and kind of liked the architecture on the left side of the building.  That was the first thing that came to mind when I started to think about doing some long exposures, so that was where I headed.  It didn’t take long to arrive and I went through the parking lot for the first time to really look at the building.  It had looked more impressive from the road unfortunately and I didn’t see a composition that I wanted to shoot.  The sky was still looking good, but I had nothing to put under it.

Since I was this far out, I decided to run by the Speedway to see what it was looking like.  When I got there, it was still locked up like I figured it would be.  I did take the time to drive around the exterior to see if there was anything that I could use for that long exposure image that I was wanting to do.  The only thing that jumped out at me was the marque sign that is visible from the highway.  I liked the rustic look of it, but there were power lines all around it and that kind of ruined it for me.  Plus, I wasn’t able to get a clean shot of it from the ground up which was want I was interested in capturing.  It was looking like there was nothing here for me unless I was able to get beyond the fence which was going to require contacting the property owner and hoping that they would let me in.  I’ll have to save that for another time as I will have to figure out what conditions would be the best to work in.  The sun right now wasn’t doing me any favors at all.

It was seeming like I was suffering from the same problem that I had a couple of days ago when I drove around for hours and only found that one location to photograph.  I was happy that I had gotten my barns, but I was still feeling creative and needed to find at least one more subject to work with before calling it a day.  I started to drive around the back roads near the Speedway and gradually made my way back into North Wilkesboro.  I was looking for pretty much anything at this point so my mind was wide open for any possibilities.

That Luxury Smile“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2 and 3-stop soft ND Grads

After I turned onto Old 421 and started on a stretch I didn’t remember being on before I caught the iconic grill of a Buick just on the other side of a fence.  I hit the brakes on the truck and pulled off the road into the parking lot that was holding this ’51ish Buick Special Eight.  The car was in great shape with all the shiny bits which made me happy.  The problem was the chain-link fence on the passenger side that had commercial trucks in it.  There was a storefront on the driver’s side and another building behind the car with other assorted parking lot clutter.  There was also a “For Sale” sign on the bumper which kind of messed with the flow of the grill, but it could help to tell the story of the car.  The sky was another mixed blessing.  The clouds were wonderful, but the sun was actually overhead of the car and causing the clouds to have a ton of contrast to them with lots of highlights to deal with.

I struggled with it for a minute or two and finally decided that it was worth pulling the camera out because I didn’t know how much longer this car would be around.  I’ve missed out on great subjects before because I chose to wait for another time.  I was confident that I could do something with this car with the conditions that I had so I pulled out the camera with the standard lens attached.  I added my polarizer which is my favorite filter for automotive photography.  I then started to find my composition.

I determined that the best option was to shoot from the passenger’s side and use the store as a background element.  I got down low so that the car blocked the building behind it and then started to work my way closer until I had the right perspective and the bushes along the side of the business provided the right degree of separation between the car and the building.  With the rough composition figured out I started to look at exposure.  As I had figured, there was much too much exposure latitude in this image and to keep the sky from blowing out, I would have the car in complete shadow which was no good.  I pulled out a 3-stop soft edge ND grad and slid that in.  The histogram started to come together a little better, but I was still way off the mark.  I slid in another 2-stop soft edge ND grad and staggered them slightly.  This allowed me to bring up the car a good deal in order to get it out of the shadows.  The sky was looking decent so I made a quick exposure to see where I was.

Well, there were still too many areas of the sky that were blowing out due to the sun being right behind the clouds.  Looking at the motion of the clouds, it appeared as though the deeper clouds would be covering the sun shortly and that would give me a better chance at capturing this image.  While I was waiting for the sun to hide a little more I changed up my composition slightly to open it up and give more of the sky as well as more of the store beside the car.  My plan was to crop the image down to a 5:7 ratio which would allow more of the sky into the frame which was starting to close in at the top which was what I wanted.

When I had the composition dialed in, I checked the exposure and it looked like I could give it another click of shutter speed to brighten the car and I fired off a shot.  The car was much better exposed with just subtle highlights, but the sky was the biggest improvement.  There were still a handful of pixels that were blown out in the histogram, but those would be easy enough to recover in post processing later on.  I had the exposure I was after so I just kept making images as the clouds moved overhead.  I was hoping that the dark clouds would close in the top of the frame and help to center the eyes on the car.  It took a minute or two, but it finally did work out and I shot until the sun got too bright once again.

While I was shooting this series of images, I saw the “For Sale” sign flopping in the breeze behind the bumper.  It wasn’t connected.  I made a quick decision to pull the sign off of the bumper very carefully.  This is not something that I would normally do and I’m still not sure it was the right choice to make.  However, it did clean up the front of the car and removed an element that I thought was more of a distraction than a help to the story of the scene.  I normally shoot a scene as a find it, but since there were no lasting issues from moving the sign, I felt that it was worthwhile to do.  I know I like the final image much better without the sign in it at least.

This was another one of those images where I wouldn’t have been able to capture it at all without the aid of the Singh-Ray ND Grads.  There was just enough wind that I wasn’t able to make multiple exposures as blending the tree limbs and clouds would have been very difficult to do in an HDR image.  I could have done a composite image, but I felt that would have been difficult to line up as well.  I felt much better capturing this as a single image and working it out like that.

Verticals“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

As I had been concentrating on the light moving over the car I had been watching the bumper.  The bumpers on these old Buicks have always been a very interesting aspect of the car for me.  I love the vertical slats of the grill and how monstrous the entire thing is on the front.  I have come across very few of these that were still in decent shape when it comes to the chrome.  This one was so reflective and shiny that it really captured my attention.  of course, part of that was the fact that I had to constantly look into the chrome to make sure that I wasn’t making a cameo appearance in any of the images.  That is a huge risk when photographing glossy surfaces.  It was those same reflections that captured my imagination though, and when I was done with the overall image of the car I moved closer to work on some isolations of that wonderful grill.  I decided that what I was wanting to do was to capture the reflection of the grill in the marker light housing with the different shapes of distortion with the chrome.  I knew that this would be a black and white image as there was really no place for color in this image.  I wanted it to be all about lines, curves, and contrasts which was the exact purpose of black and white photography.

I got down low and started to frame up the image that I had in mind.  I started out with a horizontal composition first, but that just didn’t feel abstract enough.  When I flipped it to vertical, the emphasis became clear that the grill slats were the focus here and I framed the image to really drive that home.  Again, I had to worry about my reflection in the chrome so I made use of that remote shutter release and fired the camera while I was well out of scene to the opposite side.  That slowed me down though as I had to wait for the sun to hide behind the clouds once again since I was no longer able to cover the polarizer with my hat to keep the sun from causing glare on the back of the filter.

It did all work out eventually and I had the isolation that I was after.  I looked around the car to see if there were any other intimate shots that I could get, but the car was actually in too good a shape and without pitted rust, the chrome didn’t have the contrast in textures that I like.  I did try some images of the emblems, but none of those worked out well.  In the end, I decided that I had enough here, even if I only had one single capture of the whole car.  I was feeling pretty good about that as long as the exposure was going to work out well enough to make me happy.

When I got back home and pulled these pictures into Lightroom, I had a total of 72 images which was a lot for the number of subjects that I had photographed.  The reason that I had so many was the simple fact that I was taking a lot of images as the clouds were moving across the sky.  I wanted to make sure that the sky complimented the scene rather than just being interesting.  I whittled all of those images down to a total of four that I felt were the best of the best of the group.  I ended up editing all four of them and really liked each of them.  As I was going through all of these and putting the final touches on the edits I started to really look at how I was working these images.  They were not my typical style when it comes to colors.  I was muting just about everything which removed a lot of the visual pop that I have gone for so many of the years that I have been a photographer.

Looking back over my recent work, I have seen a transition from highly saturated images with lots of contrast to the more subtle colors and smoother gradations in the tones.  Maybe it is because Winter is here and I’m not feeling particularly colorful, or maybe it is a maturing of my style which can be traced back to the beginning of 2020 when I started going for the less saturated colors in many of my images.  I know that right now I am really liking how the images are coming out and I feel that my photography is about to see another significant transition which happens every so often as I grow.  Art is a wonderful thing and I’m really enjoying seeing my art change over time.  Who knows, somebody, someday, might be referring to my photography in different periods like the great artisans of the Renaissance.  I’ll have my rusty period, saturated period, abstract period, rural period, etc…  I know, I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’m still happy that anyone talks about my photography at all regardless of style I’m shooting.

It has been a great day, even though I only got a handful of images for the hours that I was out.  I can say that I finally captured the barns that have been haunting me for months now, and I managed to overcome some serious obstacles in order to capture a really beautiful Buick in a very unphotogenic location.  The crowing achievement here is that Toni actually really loved the isolation of the grill.  To get her to like any of my old iron type photographs is a huge accomplishment and with that seal of approval I expect that image to do very well as it is released out into the world.

If you would like to learn more about decay photography and how to capture images of old cars like this, be sure to join me for my upcoming Spring Decay Workshop in East Bend, NC.  It is scheduled for April 24th and I will cover many aspects of this type of photography.  If you aren’t quite ready for a full on workshop in the field but want to learn a bit about the Art of Photography, you should really check out my online webinar/workshop coming up at the end of February.  It will be over two Saturdays, only a couple of hours at a time.

Until next time…

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